REVIEW: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

5 01 2014

It’s a shame that it has not yet become en vogue for a deep voice to announce “previously on…” at the beginning of a film like they do at the start of an episode of “Homeland” or “Lost.”  This would certainly have come in handy for “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” the middle chapter of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation-cum-trilogy.  I will confess that I found the first entry, “An Unexpected Journey,” so forgettable that I spent 15 minutes reading the plot summary on Wikipedia  – and even longer trying to figure out how to remember or comprehend it.

Call me crazy, but I’ve always been rather immune to the appeal of Jackson’s Middle Earth epics.  While I admire the impeccable make-up work, the gorgeous cinematography, and the sheer amount of attention to detail apparent in the creation, the whole always feels less than the sum of its parts.  The plots never really engage me, and I find myself mentally exhausted by the end simply trying to both follow the chain of events and keep the characters straight.

“The Desolation of Smaug” seems about on par with its predecessor.  Neither have the same sense of urgency that propelled the original “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, thus making their north-of-160-minute runtimes feel more like a chore than an afternoon of entertainment.

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REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

12 01 2013

At nearly three hours in duration, Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” plays like a director’s cut or an extended edition.  That is to say, the length feels like its been stretched out as if run through Willy Wonka’s taffy puller.  For Tolkien and “Lord of the Rings”/”Hobbit” enthusiasts, this overly generous runtime is probably a delight.

For people like me, who enjoy Jackson’s impeccable craftsmanship but fight to stave off boredom in his films, it truly is a test of patience.  The movie takes a delight in moseying and taking its time to let the events play out.  While at times, I found myself getting taken out of the movie by the obnoxiously slow pacing, I didn’t find it nearly as much of a chore as I would have expected.

For a movie I was nearly expecting to hate, ambivalence is a sort of victory for this first volume of “The Hobbit” trilogy in my book.  Perhaps the grand scope of the IMAX 3D helped as there were aerial shots aplenty to take my breath away.  The movie also features the same incredible technical achievement that won many Oscars for “The Lord of the Rings.”  Visual effects, cinematography, production design, makeup, sound … it’s all back to stunning effect.

“An Unexpected Journey” seems to be setting the stage for better things to come, and I am confident that they will in fact be delivered.  Though I couldn’t name you a single one of the dwarves, I found their quest for freedom moderately engaging.  Jackson’s script, co-written Guillermo del Toro along with his Academy Award-winning writing partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, also brings back plenty of thematic resonance to give some meaning to the wandering in this first installment.

But the movie’s best feature, and maybe the most unexpected triumph, is the performance of Martin Freeman as Bilbo Baggins.  He’s always fun to watch as a supporting actor, and with the spotlight on him, he doesn’t disappoint.  He brings all the charm of his typical unassuming wallflower to Bilbo, lending a crucial everyman vibe to a character operating in a fantasy world.

Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins is almost like a new-age (or Middle Earth, if you must) Hitchcock hero, an average joe caught by surprise in a web of events beyond his wildest imagination.  Although instead of the debonair suaveness of Cary Grant or James Stewart, Freeman provides a humble self-deprecation that makes him all the more delightful to watch.  Though I could do with a little less easygoing construction in future “Hobbit” films, I am very excited to see how Freeman will evolve the character.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Adventures of Tintin

7 01 2012

You don’t need to know who Hergé’s Tintin is to enjoy the “The Adventures of Tintin,” all you need is to be primed for an exhilarating and fun adventure with the man who introduced many of us to adventure itself, Steven Spielberg.  Whether it was “Jurassic Park,” an “Indiana Jones” movie, or “E.T.,” the director – whose name has become synonymous with cinematic virtuosity – has once again vividly realized the power of technology to invoke an old-fashioned sense of wonder in movie watching.  With the motion-capture technology looking more real and life-like than ever, it makes for an interesting paradox that “Tintin” removes you so easily from reality while so seamlessly replicating it.

Thanks to Spielberg’s partnership with Peter Jackson and his visual effects team at WETA, the two filmmakers take leaps and bounds from the early Zemeckis films like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” to fully capture the complexity of human anatomy and emotionality.  As a result, there’s nothing to distract you from getting fully engrossed in this old-fashioned Spielbergian adventure, no moment where you can think that a character looks fake or like an out-of-place animated replica.  It has been remarkable to watch this technology improve over my lifetime, and “Tintin,” along with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” makes 2011 a landmark year for its progression.

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Oscar Moment: “The Lovely Bones”

15 12 2009

In honor of its release in New York and Los Angeles, I figured “The Lovely Bones” would make good material for an Oscar Moment.

I have read Alice Sebold’s novel, the source material for the movie, and I have gone on the record expressing my distaste.  However, I am the member of a vast minority who feels that way.  A lot of people love the story of Susie Salmon, the 14-year-old that is murdered by your friendly neighborhood pedophile.  The story progresses with Susie watching from some sort of “heaven” as her family struggles to deal with her absence while hanging on to the slim hope that she might be alive somewhere.  I don’t mind depressing stories (in fact, “Revolutionary Road” is one of my favorite books and movies), but Sebold gives us such melodramatic plot and characters that there is no way to conclude with any sense of satisfaction.

As I read the book, I kept thinking to myself how it would not transfer well to the screen, especially Susie’s very vaguely written heaven.  One of the things I did admire about the book was how Sebold allowed the reader to make of this mystical place what they wanted.  She probably had her ideas about what it would look like, and I had mine.

Yet almost instantly after I finished the book, I heard that Peter Jackson was adapting “The Lovely Bones” into a film.  Although I had a hard time following the plot of “The Lord of the Rings” throughout the trilogy, I did admire Jackson’s ability to create such a fantastic universe for the series.  My initial reaction to the announcement was curiosity, and then followed by a bit of reassurance.  Spawning Susie’s heaven would be a daunting task, but I had a feeling that Jackson was one of very few who could do a good job of creating it.

The initial critical reaction seems to suggest that Jackson did not quite get it.  The film currently holds a 38% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (a 28% from top critics) and a 44 on Metacritic.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that critics don’t decide a movie’s awards success, but not even a fool can deny that they have an impact.  In the past five years, there has not been a movie with a Metacritic rating lower than 69 or a 68% Rotten Tomatoes rating nominated for Best Picture in the past 5 years.  I don’t think we can rule out Best Picture entirely, but Paramount’s blundering of the release schedule may have put the nail in the coffin.  In order for a movie that received this poor of a critical reception to score at the Oscars, it needs to be well-received by audiences.  And with “The Lovely Bones” not hitting most theaters until Martin Luther King weekend (only a week before nomination ballots are due), it would probably be too late to sway the tides in its favor.  “Gran Torino” learned this lesson the hard way last year.

Other than a Critic’s Choice nomination for Saiorse Ronan, the only blip that “The Lovely Bones” has made on the awards circuit radar so far has been for Stanley Tucci’s performance as Susie’s murderer George Harvey.  Tucci is a very likable actor who has always brightened movies with his presence, but now he has given a haunting performance that critics seem to agree is one of the few redeeming features of the movie.  He also has the success of “Julie & Julia” going for him, and the Academy loves to give nominations for a great year of work (for example, Kate Winslet ostensibly for “The Reader” but also for “Revolutionary Road”).  On a sadder note, there may be some sympathy for Tucci after losing his wife of nearly 15 years to cancer this May.

The only thing certain about the Oscar season is that nothing is certain.  So as much as I would like to say that “The Lovely Bones” is dead on arrival, I simply cannot.  Who knows what factors will come into play in the 2 1/2 months before the ceremony?  Maybe the movie will gain a huge surge of popularity that becomes too big to deny for Academy voters.  But only time will tell what happens.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actor (Stanley Tucci)

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Saiorse Ronan), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects





REVIEW: District 9

18 08 2009

In life, we often fear the unknown; with movies, I embrace it.  I saw “District 9” on blind faith, not recognizing the director or actors and knowing virtually nothing about its plot (credit this to the subtle yet effective viral marketing for the film).  I also saw it in spite of the fact that Peter Jackson, who I consider vastly overrated, was giving it a major push.  The element of the unknown only adds to the suspense of “District 9,” which is fresh and exciting to watch unfold.

The less you know about the movie, the more you will enjoy it.  I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but it involves aliens being segregated in Johannesburg’s District 9 that evokes a powerful comparison to South Africa’s Apartheid era.  And Wikus (Sharlto Copley) works closely with the aliens’ situation but will soon get much closer and gain different insight into their presence.

The first half of “District 9” is sublime.  It has power on so many different levels and you will feel it hit you hard in your gut.  The originality and unpredictability is unlike any movie of its kind you have ever seen.  Unfortunately, its second act lapses into your common, banal action flick.  And it is such a shame because it isn’t your run-of-the-mill movie; it is a smart, inventive tale that takes a concept so surreal and makes it completely believable.  Neill Blomkamp’s masterful direction allows us to be so convinced by utilizing a unique narrative voice, but I wish he had stuck to his vision throughout the movie.  But the success of the movie should be equally attributed to star Sharlto Copley, who provides a tender portrayal of Wikus that really hits home.  The film’s visual effects are breathtaking, making the aliens scary and gross, but also allowing the audience to feel some compassion for them.  But what really sets it apart from the plethora of similar movies is its simplicity.  So many science fiction movies feature really elaborate and intricately woven plots, but “District 9” is straightfoward and doesn’t try to hide anything from you.  It lets one event and motivation drive the movie, eliminating a lot of unnecessary confusion and making it quite a bit easier to watch.  Other sci-fi movies that have executed a similar formula to great success are “Alien” and “The Terminator,” and “District 9,” although not a landmark like the aforementioned, is poised to take its rightful place as a classic in the genre.  A- / 3halfstars